The New Zest for Cargo Bikes

Author: Achim Geiger

Nov 01, 2023 Safety on the road

In everyday urban life, many road users rely on the advantages of emission-free cargo bikes. We asked DEKRA experts how to best get started with cargo bikes.

Can a cargo bike replace a car in everyday life? A few years ago, this question alone would have baffled a lot of people. After all, cargo bikes were considered niche products for a long time. But it looks like the wind is changing. Cargo bikes have long been a fixture in city logistics, for example. And in the private sector, cargo bikes are scoring points as utility vehicles with exciting designs and lifestyle touches that can be used to transport a variety of loads efficiently and without emissions over short distances. Metropolises such as Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Copenhagen are already considered hotspots for cargo bikes – in the Danish capital alone, around 40,000 of them are expected on the roads this year.
Germany is currently number one in the cargo bike market
Elsewhere, the cargo bike boom is still in its infancy. In Austria, for example, around 500,000 people of the just under 9 million population can imagine using a cargo bike, according to a survey commissioned by the Vienna University of Technology. In France, cargo bikes were pure shelf warmers just five years ago, but demand is now going through the roof – retailers recorded around 33,000 units sold in 2022 (2021: 17,000 units). For the European cargo bike industry, however, Germany is currently the number one market – well ahead of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The German Bike Association (ZIV) reports that around 165,000 e-motor cargo bikes were sold in 2022, representing a year-on-year increase of 37.5 percent. By comparison, sales of models without electric assistance are rather modest at around 48,000 units.
Environmental protection and the transportation of children are the top arguments for cargo bikes
Incidentally, the typical German cargo bike user is between 30 and 49 years old and lives in a city, according to a brand-new study commissioned by the Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) on the market potential, reasons for use, and purposes of cargo bikes in the private sector. Initial partial results confirm the trend: Exactly 13 percent of the people surveyed stated that they had replaced a car by purchasing a cargo bike. Top arguments for the cargo bike are environmental protection, transporting loads, and transporting children. But which cargo bike should you consider for transporting children, groceries, and the family dog? Are there standards in terms of maximum weight and dimensions? As of now, there is no binding standard in the EU countries. That is why the bicycle industry and politicians are tinkering with a draft for the EN17860 cargo bike standard at the European level, which is also intended to cover technical issues relating to standardization and legislation for this category of vehicle. The focus lies particularly on single-track cargo bikes with a gross vehicle weight of up to 250 kilograms, as well as multi-track cargo bikes weighing up to 300 kilograms, and heavy cargo bikes weighing up to 650 kilograms.
Retailers offer a variety of different types and systems
The first two categories are likely to be used primarily in the private sector. Users can draw from a full range of options. The market offers plenty of brands with two- and three-wheeled transport bikes that also come with a variety of loading options. There are cargo bikes with and without transport boxes, as well as models with seating options and belt systems, designed specifically for transporting children. The technology of electric cargo bikes is also making progress. Retailers are offering the first bikes with anti-lock braking systems (ABS) on the front and rear wheels. Steering systems for tricycles are dominated by turntable steering, in which the entire stem, meaning handlebars, wheels, and box, are steered in the desired direction. With axle-pivot steering, on the other hand, only the handlebars and wheels rotate during steering, while the transport box is firmly connected to the frame and therefore does not perform any movement of its own during steering. A comparatively new class is formed by tricycles with tilt technology, which can be steered like a conventional bicycle by shifting your body weight to the left or right.
When kids are in the transport box, safety is the top priority
“The various types of cargo bikes have special characteristics that we don’t see in conventional bicycles,” explains DEKRA bicycle expert Marc Gölz. The dimensions, for example, take some getting used to – users will notice that some of the vehicles are quite wide, at the very latest when the cycle path suddenly narrows in oncoming traffic. Safety barriers on bike paths and at streetcar crossings can also become a difficult obstacle for a long-wheelbase Long John or for a tricycle with a transport box. In addition, the load plays an important role in how the vehicle handles. “Riding cargo bikes requires practice,” Gölz knows. The bicycle professional recommends that all prospective cargo cyclists first take extensive test rides in a parking lot or on an empty road. Classic tricycles in particular require a certain amount of training. In practice, the bikes have a high risk of tipping over if the vehicle enters the turn at too high a speed. Even if a heavier load in the transport box enables better stability, driving with foresight and moderate speed is called for. This is especially true when children are on board. However, Marc Gölz has observed time and again that parents put their children in the transport box without securing them. For the DEKRA expert this is unacceptable: “After all, children cannot decide for themselves about their safety in the cargo bike. That is the adults’ job.” His credo: Children are only safe on cargo bikes when wearing helmets and correctly fastened seat belts.
Three questions for DEKRA accident researcher Luigi Ancona
The driving and braking tests that DEKRA frequently conducts with cargo bikes show that a child dummy not strapped into the transport box is flung out of the front of the basket and hits its head on the asphalt when emergency braking at 25 kilometers per hour. But how realistic are these tests really?
Ancona: They are really close to reality. This applies to the speeds and deceleration of the cargo bikes, but also to the child dummies used, which correspond to roughly six- to ten-year-old children in terms of distribution of mass. What we cannot recreate, however, are the instinctive reactions that occur in an emergency, such as muscular tension, holding on, and supporting oneself in the transport box. The braking tests simulate a situation in which the unsecured child is taken completely by surprise by the braking maneuver – they can therefore neither hold on nor support themselves. If, in addition, the rear wheel lifts off the ground during the emergency braking and the cargo bike’s loading edge lowers as a result, then it is possible that a child is flung out of the transport box just like the dummy.
Let’s assume that two children with a combined mass of 50 kilograms are sitting in the transport box during an emergency braking maneuver at 25 kilometers per hour. What forces occur in this case?
Ancona: For an exact answer, we would need data on the exact braking deceleration. However, for cargo bikes with good brakes, we can assume a deceleration of 6 m/s². In this case, forces of 300 Newton take effect. A deceleration in a bus, for example, has a similar effect on a standing passenger when the driver hits the brakes hard in city traffic. If you’re not holding on to the handrail, you can end up on the floor.
Does this mean that an adult not wearing a seat belt in a cargo bike transport box can hold on in an emergency after all?
Ancona: Generally speaking, yes. If the passenger knows that the brakes will be applied and can hold on tight and support themself – for example, with their feet against the front wall – then this works well. But here, too, the passenger does not always expect an emergency stop. If they have no body tension at the decisive moment and an unfavorable position in the box or the box is not deep enough, then a crash with corresponding consequences is also conceivable. However, such considerations should not play a role when transporting children. Children should only ride a cargo bike safely with a helmet and a seat belt.
Checklist: Playing it safe with cargo bikes
Riding cargo bikes
Riding cargo bikes is something you have to learn. The best place to practice the basics is in a parking lot or on an empty street – first without a load, then with one: Swerving, braking, cornering, and turning.
The Long John is a dynamic cargo bike. In everyday use, the single-track bike is unproblematic to ride. Only with a high load does the bike feel a bit wobbly when mounting or stopping – the rider must therefore take care to keep the bike balanced.
Crossing a street with a Long John requires attention – because of the long front-end, visibility can be limited. When waiting for a green light at a crossing with several traffic lights, make sure that neither the front nor tail-end protrude into the road.
The handling of three-wheeled cargo bikes differs significantly from a conventional bicycle. It is not the shifting of the body’s center of gravity that determines the driving line, but the steering motion. Due to a higher tendency to tip over when turning a corner at high speed, tricycles require a cautious and moderate driving style.
Tricycles with tilting technology have a double-joint front axle that enables them to lean into curves in a similar way to single-trackers. Compared with the classic tricycle, this results in dynamic advantages when turning corners fast.
Loading cargo bikes
In practice, the weight as well as the position, distribution, and securing of the load play a decisive role in handling. Heavy loads especially impact driving dynamics.
The load has to be secured in such a way that it cannot slip or fall when cornering, braking hard, or suddenly swerving. Suitable aids for securing the load are anti-slip mats, safety nets, rubber bands, and covers.
The upper limit for the load is determined by the permissible gross weight specified by the manufacturer. If you often transport heavy loads, you need to keep an eye on the tire pressure. In this case, you can pump the tires up to the permissible upper limit.
As a rule of thumb, heavy loads belong as low as possible on the cargo bike. A low center of gravity for the entire load improves handling.
The load has to be distributed evenly in the transport box. Unfavorable weight distribution can have a negative effect on braking behavior and driving stability. It is best to have a form-fit load in the transport box.
The load should not protrude over the edges of the transport container or restrict the driver’s view.
Carrying children under the age of seven
Children under the age of seven may only be carried in specially built models with a seat and belt system. If there is more than one child on board, each child must have its own seat with the appropriate equipment.
The straps have to be tight so that the child cannot accidentally slip out of the restraints. The safety belts also provide additional protection in case of a crash.
DEKRA accident experts strongly advise that children wear a helmet during transport.